The Pathways to the Education Sciences Program was designed to inspire students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in doctoral study to pursue careers in education research. Gabriel Lorenzo Aguilar, who participated in the IES-funded University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) Pathways program focused on P-20 pipeline issues, is the first Pathways fellow to be offered a tenure track position at a university. Gabriel, who is currently finishing his doctoral program in English at the Pennsylvania State University, recently accepted a tenure-track position in the Technical Writing and Professional Design program at the University of Texas at Arlington. Growing up in the barrios of South Texas, Gabriel brings a working-class, migrant-community, and undocumented-community perspective to academia. His research and teaching center the problems of communities who are in dire need of aid and assistance and who rely on technical communication in life-critical situations, especially migrants, refugees, and asylees. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked Gabriel to reflect on his career journey and the experiences of Hispanics scholars.
How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career in using technical communication to improve the lives of vulnerable populations, such as migrants and refugees?
My grandmother was an undocumented migrant. Growing up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV) of South Texas, I saw how much community came to help not only my grandmother but other undocumented people. I saw firsthand the generosity, commitment, and sacrifice all of us in our neighborhoods made to make sure we had everything we needed.
That level of sacrifice required communication between the community, nonprofits, and others. I saw younger generations provide translation services to their grandparents, making sure that the older generation understood how to get resources such as Medicaid or subsidized utilities. It was only after I went to college that I learned that this communication had a name: technical communication. Broadly speaking, the field of technical communication focuses on making technical information understandable to a wide variety of audiences. It can include things like instructions on how to submit applications for aid or forms for service but has recently expanded to include the communication of marginalized peoples. The types of technical communication we did in the barrios were not included in broader discussions. So, I made it a mission of mine in graduate school to bring the kind of technical communication from marginalized populations into the mainstreams of research and practice.
My past projects looked into helping humanitarian organizations better translate for Mexican migrant populations. Future projects are tackling similar issues with the general population in the RGV and how citizens communicate with one another to form coalitions for change. In any case, my background and experiences help me see technical communication as a field that can improve the lives of my community.
How did participation in the UTSA P20 Pathways program shape your career journey?
Quite frankly, the UTSA Pathways program made my career journey. I struggled a lot in undergrad. I noticed that my peers that excelled were usually white and from more affluent school districts. They seemed to know everything while the rest of us, especially those from the RGV, were behind.
The UTSA Pathways program helped me understand there is a place for scholars like me: those from disenfranchised backgrounds with the passion to help communities in need. While in the program, I learned to recognize disparities in education outcomes—that inequity stems from lack of resources and structural issues such as racism. The program empowered me to see education as a means to tackle such issues.
The program also shaped my understanding of what it means to be an educator: patient, accessible, and demonstrative. I was the undergraduate who didn’t understand the material, who felt too small to ask for help. I’ve learned to recognize the tells of that kind of student—students who often experience the world like I do as a student of color from a working-class background. I try to approach these students first, establishing clear channels of communication and accessibility.
What advice would you give education researchers who wish to work with migrant and refugee communities?
These communities need resources, not predatory researchers. My advice would be to be reflexive on what you give and take when working with a migrant community. There is a long history of researchers extracting data from a marginalized population only to leave that community once their findings are peer reviewed and published. I encourage researchers to practice humanitarian values in their research and practice; that is, to work on the immediate needs of the community, write about those interventions, and then collect data on that immediate work. This way, the community can get the resources they need from a researcher that is actively engaged in improving their quality of life.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of Hispanic students and researchers?
The broader education research community must understand the conditions that many Hispanic students and researchers face in academia, especially Hispanics of color from working class backgrounds. My advice would be to practice patience and grace with Hispanic students. I’ll give an example. I worked with a nontraditional Hispanic student at Penn State who was brilliant but lacked confidence in his writing. He grew up in the Dominican Republic and was in the United States pursuing a degree as a middle-aged adult. His professors that semester heavily criticized his writing: some of the criticism was constructive, some was racist. The constructive criticism demonstrated the flaws of his writing and offered solutions to consider. The racist criticism questioned this student’s belonging in academia, often referring to his misunderstanding of U.S. and English language writing conventions.
Of course, Hispanic students and researchers are not a monolith. We come from all walks of life, some of us more privileged than others. Nonetheless, those with power in the education research community must understand the obstacles that Hispanic students face when navigating higher education.
What advice would you give Hispanic students and scholars who wish to pursue a career in education research?
Understand that the halls of academe weren’t built for us, especially Hispanics of color from working-class backgrounds. I’ve experienced my fair share of microaggressions and blatant racism. Most of the time, these aggressions come from a place of misunderstanding on how our experiences, communities, and culture shape our perspectives of the world. The fight to get our problems recognized, our perspectives respected, and our voices heard can seem never ending. But when I look back at the previous generations of Hispanics in academia, I can really appreciate the positive changes that have come.
My advice would be to accept that you alone cannot change education research. Our generation of scholarship might do little to change education research. It might do a lot. But the momentum is here. The community is here, and with that community, real change can come.
This guest blog is part of a series in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. It was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program.